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The Power of Presence

April 15, 2016

What do you do when someone learns they are going to die? What do you say to someone who is grief-stricken over a loss? What are the mistakes to avoid so as not to make it worse?

Grief comes to all of us, and as we grow older our losses come in waves. We lose our loved ones, our friends, our closest family members, even our children. If the loss involves a suicide, the grief is multiplied many times over in a deadly mixture of guilt, anger and sorrow. One of the ways our island community responds to a death is by gathering together, surrounding the grieving souls, bringing food, all of which are traditional ways to help support each other. Yet, there is also a habit of rushing a person in their grieving process, pressuring them to stop mourning and "move on." In grief workshops, I asked people what others do that is helpful and what is not helpful.  We all mean well. Yet, sometimes the way we act around dying or grieving people makes thing worse, not better. We bring cold comfort. Most of the time, people want to be helpful but end up doing things I call "Help strikes again."

  1. Taking over. Deciding for the dying or grieving person what they should do and how they should react. Not asking, but telling. "We're going to fight this cancer with every bit of chemo possible."  Instead, listen. Ask. "How is this for you?" "What do you want to do now?" "What concerns do you have?" "How are you doing today?"
  2. Judging. After my brother John received a terminal diagnosis, a friend shocked him by saying he developed brain cancer because he spent too much time in his head, too much time thinking. What??!! People often tell a grieving person after a loss, "You have to move on. Get on with your life."
  3. Advice that demeans the hurt and loss. A young woman whose much older husband died said that what was unhelpful and really offended her was people saying, "Don't worry. You're young. You'll marry again." She felt they were dishonoring her loyalty and love for her husband.

What people do need is so amazingly simple, it can escape our awareness. We need someone to be present and to care, to listen to stories about the loved one who is gone. To let us talk. And cry. Grief is a journey that takes whatever time it takes. As a friend wisely said to me after listening to my tears and sadness after my brother died, "It's like an amputation. You don't get over it. You get used to it." What others need, including the dying, is your sacred curiosity. Ask them how they are and then just listen with empathy and understanding. There is no quick fix. Prayer can help, but don't expect it to make sorrow vanish. Quaker author, Douglas Steer said, "To 'listen' another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery is almost the greatest service any human being ever performs for another."

A friend recently returned home after several months in hospital, and the first thing she did was to tell me all about it. She wanted me to see the surgery scars and describe in detail what the doctor had said, what she said to him, and a graphic depiction of the surgery during which she was conscious.  I didn't need to say a word until she finished. I just said, "You showed a lot of courage to go through that." Then I asked what foods she wants and brought some later that day.

Stay in touch with grieving people. Their grief doesn't heal quickly. Women whose children had committed suicide attending a virtues healing workshop in Rarotonga said they felt very lonely during the years since their children's deaths, because everyone expected them to stop grieving. "It's been 12 years, and it still hurts terribly." Be a patient story keeper. You may think you aren't doing anything, but being present, with compassionate curiosity and openness is a rare and truly helpful blessing.

For more on this topic, see Graceful Endings: Navigating the Journey of Loss and Grief.


Author photo
Linda Kavelin-Popov

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